[Educational Screen, Oct 1951] This film relates the experiences of a middle-class American family when they are stimulated to review the things for which they are thankful.
Bill Johnson, a garage mechanic, comes home from work on the day before Thanksgiving to find his children completely disheartened by their mother's announcement that the family cannot afford a turkey for the holiday. Shocked at his son Dick's statement that there won't be much to be thankful for, Bill gently reminds him and the other children that while turkey on Thanksgiving is a great American tradition, its presence sometimes obscures the real meaning of Thanksgiving.
When Dick concedes that modern Americans are a lot better off than the Pilgrims, the others suggest that they all make a list of the things for which they are thankful. Their father cautions them to give serious thought to their list, which should include only the things they feel deeply. He then watches them mulling over their thoughts as they play during the evening.
At the Thanksgiving dinner table, each member of the family offers part of the thanks. Tommy is thankful for plenty of food and free library books to read. Susan mentions clothing, Sunday school, and her family. Dick gives thanks for a chance to get an education and a chance to play. Bill thinks as he looks at Baby Janet that she must be thankful in her own way for fun in the bathtub, playtime, and security. Mrs. Johnson is thankful that her children can grow up healthy and strong, that she can guide them, that her family can have many of the modern conveniences, that she can have freedom of speech, and that Mr. Johnson's job brings peace of mind. Bill Johnson then finishes the list with the things for which he is thankful: a home with privacy, freedom from fear of political reprisal, the right to pick a vocation in which he is happy, freedom of opinion as represented by his newspaper, the right to vote, and the belief that family unity can become world-wide unity.
[Ken Smith notes --] The Johnson family -- Mother, Dick, Susan, Tommy and "baby Janet" -- are eagerly anticipating their Thanksgiving dinner when dad ("Bill") comes home with some bad news -- no turkey! "We've had a lot of expenses this month," he explains, but the kids still want their giblets and drumsticks ("Even the pilgrims had a feast!" they whine). Dad suggests that they spend some time "toting up the common, everyday blessings we all have to be thankful for," and thus we find ourselves at the Johnson family dinner table, listening in on their Thanksgiving dinner prayers (with a heavenly choir "ahh"-ing and "umm"-ing in the background).
Dick reflects that he likes being in a country "where school books are studied -- not burned," Mother is grateful for "hot water out of the tap," and Tommy gushes, "If I didn't live in a country where there was plenty to go around -- goll-leee!" Dad is simply thankful that when someone knocks on his front door, "it's not going to be some political gangster come to drag us off to jail because we believe in freedom!"
Centron really pulled out all the McCarthyesque stops for this film -- things weren't going so well for the Free World in 1951, so perhaps it's understandable. Dad: "For all these things, we are truly and humbly thankful. Amen." Heavenly Choir: "Ahhhhhh-mennnnnnnn!"
In the midst of the Cold War, a family who cannot afford a Thanksgiving turkey instead counts its blessings. What they discover -- that what's on the dinner table isn't as important as the freedom under which we eat it -- is at once a cop to Cold War mentality and a rejection of rampant consumerism, Fifties-style. And so this simple story becomes a film that is scary and touching at the same time.
To jaded end-of-the-century eyes, A Day of Thanksgiving recalls an era when daily life meant daily worries about Communism and regimentation. On that level, it's a morality tale demonstrating how children and families learn to put selflessness ahead of satisfaction as an undeclared war rages. Throughout the film the Johnsons keep repeating how lucky they are compared to their unluckier counterparts overseas. "A knock on the door," says Bill, "...you can bet that it isn't some political gangster coming to drag us away because we believe in freedom."
Patriotism isn't some lofty ideal in this film, but is rather shown as a means towards achieving the possible. Patriotism (and thankfulness for liberty, for this film is about liberty much more than democracy) means behaving as one should to regenerate the social relations into which one was born. For example: Dad is thankful for job, car and daily newspaper; Mother takes care of the family at home. The girls are interested in dresses and dishes; the boys in reading and education. These are the imagined interests of different groups. So many of the things people say are sex and age-linked; Susan is thankful that she has enough to wear, Dick is thankful that a guy can go to school and learn, and fast-growing Tommy is thankful that he has enough to eat. Mrs. Johnson ("Mother") is thankful that her children can grow up safe and healthy; her thanks all relate to home and family. (Patriotism is often defined differently for women; see the "Patriotism for Women" supplement in the Archives section.)
But it would be wrong to speak of Day of Thanksgiving only as an artifact of its time. In one very important way it runs against the stream of postwar culture -- it's anti-materialistic. At the same time it champions a very simplistic set of values, it places great importance on things that money cannot buy. In so doing it seems much less corrupt than, say, the oil-soaked film Destination Earth. It also shows the Johnsons deriving their sense of values from local reality and direct, personal experience, rather than through the mass media. All in all, this film expresses considerably more integrity than the corporate-sponsored films of the same period.
As scriptwriter Trudy Travis reveals in her fascinating interview ("Making Movies in Kansas"), Centron shot most of its productions in and around Lawrence, Kansas using nonprofessional talent from the nearby University of Kansas and elsewhere. Their films collectively form an unusually interesting record of the "look and feel" of Lawrence and the surrounding area throughout the postwar years. While Centron, like other producers, generally avoided explicit regional references, it made no attempt to homogenize the distinctive speech and mannerisms of its prairie-reared talent and, perhaps without intending to, created movies that have real ethnographic and documentary value quite aside from their declared subject matter. For other films by Centron, see The Behavior Offensive (What About Prejudice?) and Gender Role Call (Cindy Goes to a Party).
According to Trudy Travis, "'Bill Johnson' in A Day of Thanksgiving was Dan Palmquist. He was in the drama department at the University and came down to play the father of that family. He saw what fun it was to make movies and he stayed; he served in a number of different capacities. He eventually became head of our editing department." Dan Palmquist also appears as a gasoline station attendant in Harold "Herk" Harvey's cult film Carnival of Souls (1962), produced in and around Lawrence. Harvey was a staff director at Centron and is reputed to have taken advantage of their facilities in the production of his feature.
The "Teacher's Committee Appraisal of New Films" stated, "An all-too-rare sincerity of presentation helps this film to put across its message of the true Thanksgiving spirit. The setting is unpretentious, the characters are convincing, and the generally abstract ideas of human rights are presented concretely and naturally through a typical family. High school and adult groups concerned with human rights should be stimulated to further discussion by the film. General interest groups on the junior high, high school, and adult levels will find it appropriate during the Thanksgiving season. The technical quality is good." (Educational Screen, October 1951)
Cold War Gender roles Sexism Stereotypes Lawrence, Kansas Fifties Parents Families Ideology Democracy Washing machines Wringers Automobiles Garages Mechanics Paychecks Bosses Employers Houses and homes Meals Dinners Grace Prayers Religion Anti-communism Voting Newspapers Family values
Thanks for all the blessings we share. Thanks for freedom, for bountiful land. And thanks for our country, our people, our homes. [Young America Films presents A Day of Thanksgiving, a Centron Production, Centron Corporation, Lawrence, Kansas. Copyright MCMLI Centron Corporation, Inc. All rights reserved choruses songs singing main titled graphic design art cards eagles hammer and sickles hammers and sickles families reading newspapers homes living rooms]
"I'm Bill Johnson. Around here they just call me Dad. I've been trying to read but I just can't seem to do it. I keep thinking about today, Thanksgiving Day. [radios fathers music addressing audience camera]
We Johnsons had a good Thanksgiving, the best we've ever had. And I can't help thinking that what made it better was a feeling - a real feeling of thankfulness. And that's odd too when you consider the shape things were in when I got home from work yesterday."
The kids, Dick and Tommy and Susan, were all home from school and of course Mother and the baby were there. As kids will, mine were living tomorrow right along with today, looking forward to Thanksgiving, and like most men, I'm glad it was Mother instead of me who had to break the news to them. [plates setting tables newspapers reading gender roles]
"Tomorrow's Thanksgiving." "Mmm. Turkey and dressing and pie and cake." "And fruit salad and whipped cream and cranberries. Gee I can hardly wait." "Me too." [food anticipation]
"Well, you know children, we've had a lot of expenses this month. Well, your father and I thought that - well, the truth of the matter is there just won't be any turkey this year." "No turkey for Thanksgiving?" "Oh, I'm going to make a pumpkin pie. We'll have plenty to eat, but well, we'll just have to get along without turkey." [mothers breaking the news bad news disappointment economy poverty shortages adversity]
"Mom, you don't mean it. It won't be Thanksgiving at all." "Even the Pilgrims had a feast. After all, isn't that what Thanksgiving's for? I don't think it's fair." And it was right there that I came in, right in the thick of it. [entrances lunchboxes]
"Hello everybody." "Hi Pa." "Hello Mother, Dick, Susan. Well what's been going on around here? What's the matter with everybody anyway?" "Mom says we're not going to have any Thanksgiving." "No turkey, no good things." "A fat lot we're going to have to be thankful for."
"I don't think you kids really mean that." "We do too. We've always had turkey for Thanksgiving." "Yes, and everybody else on the block's going to have it this year. Same as always." "Yes, we've always had turkey, just as a lot of Americans have had it, and will keep on having it. Turkey on Thanksgiving's a great American tradition. But what you kids are saying makes it sound as if the turkey's the only thing we had to be thankful for."
"Well, gee whiz - no, Dad. It's not that at all." "Oh, I know, Dick. With turkey it's easy to lose sight of what Thanksgiving really means." "And don't think we're just making excuses because we don't have any turkey this year. We, well, we know it will mean a lot more to us the next time we do have it."
"Well sure. Suppose we don't have a bang-up feast. We're still a lot better off than the Pilgrims." "That's it, Dick. Now do you other kids see what Dick's trying to say? Turkey or no turkey, we've still got all the freedoms and privileges the Pilgrims gave us. And out of those privileges have come a lot of things, things the Pilgrims never even dreamed of."
"Why, we could make a list a mile long." "Why don't we do it." "Now hold on a minute. You've got the idea, but it isn't something you can write down like - like a grocery list. You've got to feel it down deep before you can really be thankful for anything.
I tell you what let's do. Let's take a little more time to think this over. When you get right down to it, there are some pretty tough decisions in making up your mind what means the most to you. Your life, sure, that's one thing you can't get along without. But do you know that there are some places in the world today where you have to get along without just about everything else?"
"Golly, Daddy." "I guess I kind of got carried away. But I'll bet you one thing. If we really think over what we have to be thankful for when we sit down to whatever Mother fixes to eat tomorrow, we'll be one family in America that will really have a Thanksgiving dinner.
"Well, that's how it got started. The Johnsons didn't have any turkey. And the kids - no, I mean everybody - likes to make something special out of a special day. So we fell back on something as old as the Pilgrims, toting up the common, ordinary blessings that we had to be thankful for."
That night I'd see Dick there building his model airplane and Susan just playing. Only they weren't just playing. They were mulling things over, thinking big thoughts for such young heads. And as for Mother and Tom and baby Janet, and yes, me, too - it was as if we had our eyes open for the first time. (inaudible) things there were to appreciate in just any ordinary day in America. [models paper dolls hobbies cutting scissors high chairs feeding babies]
When we took our places around the table and we were ready. And then, well, we all knew it. There are some things you just can't say. But everybody in his own way knew what he had to be thankful for and that this was the time to think about it. Tom was first. I am thankful for getting plenty to eat all the time with extras that count like cookies and milk after school. Like Mom says I'm hungry all the time anyway and if I didn't live in a country where there is plenty to go around - golly! [Thanksgiving dinners food eating]
And I'm thankful for the free public library where I can get books about adventure: Jack London, Richard Halliburton. Gee, the way they tell a story, it's as good as being there yourself. And it's free with only a library card." [reading explorers authors]
Yes, Tommy thought about some of the things he ought to be glad for all the time, and somehow turkey and trimmings seemed to matter a whole lot less than he thought they did yesterday. Well, then it was Susan's turn.
Susan's a happy-go-lucky kid. You'd never credit her with thinking beyond her dolls. But she got right into the spirit of it. I am thankful we have what we need to wear. Though Mother says it's hard to keep up with us, we grow so fast. I never thought before how many clothes it takes for all kinds of weather, or how it would be to have to do without the right ones. [gender roles sex roles girls women patterns dresses]
I'm glad to be able to go to Sunday school or go to any church I want any Sunday. I'm thankful for my Mother and Daddy, that they are here with us, that both of them aren't too worried about things to take time to have fun with us. I'm glad we're a family, that families are still important in America." [singing worship churches hymns parents family values]
I guess Dick, being the oldest, was having some pretty serious thoughts. I am thankful for being able to get an education, for living where schools - all schools - open their doors to a guy who wants to learn, where school books are studied instead of burned, where a guy's rated by how much he knows, and the community is rated by how well it teaches him. [studying homework thinking]
I'm glad I've got a chance to play, batting a ball around once in a while, stuff like that. I'm glad it's fun growing up in America. [baseball bats athletic fields]
Sure, baby Janet's too young to understand the big word Thanksgiving. She's too little even to tell us the things that make her happy. But we can tell. And maybe she's thinking about them now. Maybe she's thinking about the fun of splashing around in the tub, and about how good it feels to be clean, about playtime with Mother and the security she feels in Mother's arms. [babies bathtubs baths dolls]
And as for Mother, seems she's always working, cooking, ironing, tending children - daylight to dark. What does she have to be thankful for?
I am thankful that my children had the privilege of being born safely, and of growing up healthy and strong. I'm thankful that I have the privilege of guiding them as they become useful men and women. [mothering gender roles women sex roles]
And I'm thankful for all the things our American system makes possible for the Smiths and the Browns and the Johnsons. The washing machine, hot water out of a tap, and a telephone to call the doctor when one of the family is sick, a car to get Dad to work. [wringers washing machines sweat wiping brow housework homemaking faucets basins automobiles cars]
Yes, I'm thankful for all the things free people working together can produce. I'm thankful that when my neighbor drops in to borrow a cup of flour, we've got the right to talk about anything we want to, the parent-teacher project, the new mayor, or Jane Jones' hat. [Margaret Carlile 'Trudy' Travis neighbors women chatting talking conversation]
And last of all, I'm truly thankful for the peace of mind that Dad's job brings, for knowing that even though there are lots of luxuries we can't afford there still will always be enough to go around for the things we have to have. I'm glad Dad doesn't work slave hours, that there are evenings and Sundays and vacations when we can all be together. [automobiles repair shops hoods work clothes hats caps mechanics wiping down rags bosses employers paychecks paydays smoking pipes Pippert's]
That's Mother for you. Grateful for what America means to her family. And now for me. I've got so many things to be thankful for.
I'm thankful for this house. It may need a coat of paint, it has a mortgage - but it's ours, a place where we can be together in privacy. And I'm thankful for the thing that makes this house our home, the happiness here - not just today or on Christmas morning, but on a day-to-day basis all through the year. For knowing the knock on our door means nothing to fear, a friend calling or maybe a bill collector or a kid selling magazines. You never know what to expect, but you can count on one thing: it's not going to be some political gangster coming to drag one of us off to jail because we believe in freedom. [houses homes totalitarianism porches Lawrence, Kansas families knocking strangers insecurities fears menace jeopardy Cold War anticommunism anti-communism smiling greetings hats doors opening]
And I'm glad that that freedom we've got lets me choose the kind of work I like and can do best. Taking a sluggish motor and making it hum again makes me feel that somebody got to his work or wherever he had to go just because of me, and feeling like that gives me a lot of satisfaction.
And I'm thankful for my newspaper, just a few cents worth of printer's ink and paper, but more valuable than any amount of money because in it the editor's got the privilege of printing what he thinks, and I've got the privilege of agreeing with him or not, however the facts strike me. [freedom of the press First Amendment]
And both of us, the editor and I, have the right to act on our opinions on election day, to vote for the principles we believe in. And finally, I'm thankful for being able to believe - in spite of everything - that somehow, some way the unity we've got here in the Johnson family will someday spread to men and nations throughout the world. [elections voting booths polling booths]
"For all these things, we are truly and humbly thankful. Amen." [The End. end titles Dresden Amen choruses songs singing music prayers eating meals napkins in laps stars eagles hammers and sickles hammer and sickle]